On 11th August the Keliko people of South Sudan celebrated the launch of their New Testament in exile in northern Uganda. Many are now living there in refugee settlements.
The Dedication was carried out by the Bishop of the Area Diocese of Panyana, Rt. Rev. Seme Nigo, with Archbishop Paul Yugusuk, under the patronage of the Bishop of West Nile, Church of Uganda, since almost all the Keliko have moved across the border in the last few years. It took place in the Koboko refugee camp in northern Uganda.
It is the 1000th New Testament translation that SIL, Wycliffe’s primary partner, has been involved in. Behind the celebrations is a remarkable story of faith and persistence through the traumas of migration and war to bring God’s message of hope to the Keliko people.
The Keliko were first evangelised in the early 1900s but their only access to God’s word came through Bangala or Bari, the neighbouring trade languages.
In the early 1980s Rev David Gale gathered a group of Keliko people together to help him write the Keliko language, as there was no standard way of writing Keliko at the time, and to begin translating the Bible.
Difficulties on the way
During the late 1980s as work on writing the Keliko language and initial translation developed, the conflict across southern Sudan was also mounting.
Before that stage of the work was complete full-scale war broke out. All SIL and Wycliffe staff were pulled out of South Sudan and the Keliko people had to leave their land to become refugees in Uganda and Congo.
Work on the translation stalled until Rev David’s grandson, Rev Seme Nigo, who was studying to become a pastor at a theological college in Arua in northern Uganda, met some Wycliffe people who visited the college to talk about Bible translation. Seme told them about the Keliko work that had been started – but not yet completed. This led to the project starting up again, first in Arua and then, after the signing of a major peace agreement, the team moved to the capital of South Sudan, Juba.
Love of God’s word
Between 2000 and 2016 things were relatively stable in the Keliko area and the translation team, made up of their team leader Rev Isaac Kenyi and translators Rev Ezekiah Dada and Rev Enos Dada, along with help from the now Bishop Seme, worked persistently and diligently translating the word of God into Keliko. And with each phrase, verse and chapter they moved closer to realising Rev David’s – who died in the mid-2000s – goal of having the Bible available for his people. The Keliko live right on the Congo border in the Morobo district of Central Equatoria (see map). Their church centre is at Panyana. Currently because of the insecurity most of the population is in camps just across the border in Uganda.
‘Then in July 2016 after fighting broke out in the capital Juba it spread across South Sudan,’ Jackie Marshall-Ringer, who is the director of SIL in South Sudan explains, ‘the Keliko area became very insecure and unstable. A lot of people were killed and most people then left and ended up again in various refugee camps in Uganda or Congo.’Most of the Keliko people had lost their livelihoods. They had come from a rich agricultural area and used to sow two to three rounds of crops a year. But the land in the camps is very limited and rocky so most of the Keliko now rely on the UN for basic food.
The result of all the work of translation with the key team being ECSS pastors was the launch of the Keliko New Testament, which also includes translations of the books of Genesis, Exodus 1-20, Ruth, and Jonah from the Old Testament. ‘The launch was very creatively put together,’ Jackie says. ‘All the South Sudanese have a gift for music and dance. The Keliko have these African harps, and I suspect they are more like the harps mentioned in the Old Testament than our classical harps. They had composed a few songs especially. The theme of the launch was Psalm 66:5 – “Come and see what God has done” – and one of the songs they wrote that was played on the harps was about the history of the translation.
The Keliko still wait for peace and to be able to return to their land. But even in the midst of that painful waiting they have been able to see how tears of sadness, like Rev David’s, can lead to the joy of now having God’s word in their language.
Edited extracts from ‘Words for Life’ Autumn 2018 Wyclilffe Bible translators.